A background check is a process an organization uses to verify that a job applicant is who they claim to be. They can be formal or informal, with the goal of each being to examine various details about a candidate. These details include their character, employment history, financial records, and other past activities in order to confirm their legitimacy. This serves to protect the other employees, customers, and the company’s reputation. It’s a best practice to conduct background checks after a contingent offer is made to a final candidate.
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6 Steps to Conducting Free Employment Background Checks
Background checks are not a one-size-fits-all, and if your organization doesn’t yet have the resources to employ a third-party to conduct the check, there are a few ways to uncover pertinent information without spending a lot of time. Be sure to establish a background check policy to keep you on track and remember there are restrictions set forth by the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) determining what companies are allowed to check, and how, if they are using a third-party background screening agency.
1. Contact Mutual Acquaintances
When conducting a background check, it is common to start with collecting information from the candidate, such as a Social Security number or contact information for references. However, one of the more common ways to research a candidate without having to collect information first is called back-channeling.
A back-channel reference check is when an individual contacts former colleagues of the candidate, not listed as a reference, to discuss what it was like for them to work with the prospective hire.
Back-channeling works best when a hiring manager actually knows the individual they are contacting at the former company (versus cold calling), and it can be highly effective because folks are likely to be more forthcoming when giving information to someone they have a relationship with.
2. Be a LinkedIn Looker
LinkedIn is a social media platform geared toward making professional connections and displaying work history. Checking out a candidate’s LinkedIn profile is both free and expected by candidates. It can also add insight into your candidate’s work accomplishments, who might be in their network, and if anyone has written a reference for them on their profile, then there is added insight into their work ethic and relationships.
Although any information can be helpful, keep in mind that the candidate self-reports everything on LinkedIn, so it would be prudent to confirm any information that is collected. Still, LinkedIn is always an excellent start, especially early in the recruiting process.
3. Follow Through on the Reference Check
Once there is a final candidate in mind, it is common practice to conduct a reference check.
A reference check is when an employer contacts a candidate’s previous employers, peers, and other sources to learn more about their on-the-job performance, employment history, and qualifications for a job.
The contacted parties are generally provided by the prospective employee, and reference checks can be conducted via email or telephone through a series of relevant questions about the experience had with the candidate. If you’re really busy, there are some reference checking services that will do the work for you.
Some candidates will provide a written reference letter at some point within the recruiting process; and while this could add some perspective, many times, letters can be months or years old. It is best practice to still request three to five references that can be contacted directly either right before an offer is made or following a contingent offer.
For executive positions, requesting six (6) references is not uncommon. Consider conducting these via phone instead of email, as it is easier to ask additional questions and have thoughtful conversations using this method.
4. Consider Avoiding Some Social Media Sites
Perhaps the most common (and controversial) way to informally learn more about a candidate is to view their social media profiles (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, etc.). While understandably tempting, peering into the personal lives of prospective hires can lead to bias.
In a study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University, it was found that up to a third of US businesses were checking applicants out on social media during the hiring process. Amongst these businesses, researchers discovered discrimination tied to affiliation with a political party. Using social media to exclude a prospective hire based on race, school, or even their favorite hobbies, is bad for business, morally wrong, and, worse, can lead to avoidable litigation. There are so many other ways to obtain information about a candidate that is less risky. Consider not seeing what you cannot unsee.
5. Check Court Records
Another free or low-cost tool you can use when learning how to conduct a background check on a candidate is the court database. It typically shows any record of criminal activity. One valuable place to start is the US Courts database. As a follow-up, use a State and County specific database to research on a granular level. Typically, the search is free, but a nominal fee will be charged for any documents.
Remember to check state laws before using criminal records in the hiring process. Fourteen states have laws requiring employers to remove the check box that asks if applicants have a criminal record from hiring applications.
6. Watch Your Step: Check the Laws
There are several states that have specific laws around background checks and what can and cannot be considered when determining eligibility to be hired. Although this list is by no means exhaustive, here is a starter list of limitations in some states:
- Conviction Reporting Limited to Seven Years: California, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, New Mexico, New York, New Hampshire, and Washington
- Total Prevention of Non-Convictions Being Reported: California, Kentucky, New York, and New Mexico
- Pending Criminal Cases Are Not Reportable: Kentucky
- Ban the Box Laws: Over 31 states and 100 cities and counties
Ban the Box is a law that many states have passed preventing employers from including the box requesting criminal history on job applications.
Use a Professional Background Checking Service
If you have the resources, using a third-party background check company is a great way to ensure regulatory compliance and an unbiased process. They have leveraged technology to complete thorough background checks in a timely manner.
Regardless of which company fits your needs best, there are typically several types of searches that can be chosen from for a customized experience.
What to Consider When Using Background Check Services
A general criminal background check, for example, can also be combined with a driving history, credit history inquiry, and drug test results. Each test may cost additional money, so you should only request information specifically related to the position for which you’re hiring and that’s within the guidelines of the state regulations where the employee is based. Fortunately, the convenience of employing a third-party search company means that they are keeping up with constantly changing laws and regulations in each state, reducing liability.
Most important to remember is that the Fair Credit Reporting Act, or FCRA (15 U.S.C. §1681), requires that employers obtain a candidate or employee’s written consent before hiring an outside agency to provide a consumer report. In addition, you must notify the applicant or employee that you will be using the information you gather to make a hiring or continuing employment decision. If they’re negatively affected by your decision, you’ll need to provide them with a copy of the report along with their rights to appeal your decision under the FCRA.
The Bottom Line
There are several effective ways on how to conduct a background check that employers should know. If resources are lacking and low cost or free employment background checks are preferred, much thought must be invested into determining which avenues will be most effective. Avoiding conflict with the varying state laws regarding background checks is also important.
While LinkedIn is a great place to start, it may be advisable to supplement a low-cost background check with services from a third-party agency and, regardless of the route chosen, be sure to check references as a consistent step in the process. A background check is necessary to protect your company and an important factor on the journey to hiring a fantastic employee.
If you want to learn about the methods that you can use to assess candidates, then read our article on ways to do applicant screening.